Battling the Beauty Myth in Argentina

Typical Argentine mannequins found in the capital of Buenos Aires/Photo by Sharon Haywood

In March 2011, the NGO AnyBody is holding international summits around the world. The aim is to save future generations of girls from the misery that turns women against their own bodies.

The challenge is to make people understand how and why this is an emergency, to show them how they can do something about it, and to inspire them to embrace change.

When and where:

Below you will find the cross-post “Battling the Beauty Myth in Argentina” from AnyBody’s website, which highlights a major focus of Endangered Species in Buenos Aires.

By Sharon Haywood, Co-Editor

María Pérez (pseudonym), a 34-year-old Argentine, works as a sales clerk in a clothing store in the capital of Buenos Aires, but she doesn’t wear the clothes she sells. She’s a size 46 (UK 18/US 16) and the largest size her store offers is 38 (UK 10/US 8). She told AnyBody, “The only clothes that I can find to fit are imported name brands like Levis but they’re really expensive, at least twice the cost of an Argentine brand. The problem is, I can’t fit into any Argentine brands. There aren’t that many speciality shops for larger sizes and even then the clothing is quite boring, not fashionable at all.” She deals with the problem by asking friends who travel to North America or Europe to bring her back the clothes she wants.

Kasandra Shay, a 40-year-old American living in the province of Buenos Aires wears a US size 6-8 (UK 10-12) and said, “it’s impossible to find anything that fits.” She told AnyBody that for the last three years she has resided in Argentina she only buys clothes when visiting the States. “I feel like if you aren’t five feet tall and an absolute stick with twigs for arms and legs, (and no hips), then clothes just aren’t for you.”

Luciana La Morgia, a 34-year-old Argentine residing in the capital of Buenos Aires, doesn’t know what her size is. Depending on where she buys her clothes, her size ranges from a 30 to a 40 (UK 2-12/US 0-10), sometimes even in the same store. She stated that it is challenging to find clothes that fit properly and said that women’s clothing in Argentina “is made for little dolls and girls without hips.”

According to Monique Altschul, the executive director of the feminist organisation Fundación Mujeres en Igualdad (Women in Equality Foundation), approximately 70% Argentine women have difficulty finding clothes that fit. As a result, women have no choice but to shop at speciality stores that carry larger sizes, but in Argentina, fashion and larger sizes are not congruous. By comparison, women in the UK and the US can shop at popular and style-conscious chains like Marks & Spencer or specialists such as Evans and Lane Bryant. AnyBody also spoke with Dr. Mabel Bello, the executive director of ALUBA, Argentina’s Association Against Bulimia and Anorexia who said, “Argentina has the second highest rate of eating disorders in the world … and 95% of its women believe they are fat.” Taking such facts into consideration, the lack of a full range of clothing sizes isn’t just an inconvenience. It’s feeding a national health crisis.

Activists and key governmental forces recognised the problem and lobbied for change. In December 2005, legislators implemented the country’s first size law (la Ley de Talles) for the province of Buenos Aires, which covers the extensive suburbs outside of the country’s capital. The law states that retailers of clothing for teens must stock sizes 38 to 48 (UK 10-20/US 8-18) of all items available for purchase. It also mandates that sizes small, medium, and large, and sizes 1 through 4 be abolished. Furthermore, every size must be accompanied by a ticket that specifies bust, waist, and hip measurements that adhere to standards set by the National Institute for Normalisation and Certification, otherwise known as IRAM. The penalties for noncompliance include fines and even store closure. Argentine consumers and activists applauded the legislation. But the celebration didn’t last long.

In 2007, Fundación Mujeres en Igualdad (MEI) conducted a follow-up of store compliance at one of the province’s largest shopping malls, Unicenter, which revealed discouraging findings. Most stores carried only up to a size 42 (UK 14/US 12); various store employees asserted that they did not carry size 48 (UK 20/US 18); and a good number of retailers had incorrectly labelled the sizes of clothing items in which larger sizes were actually a size or two smaller than stated. Furthermore, none of the size labels included the IRAM-specified bodily measurements, and the majority of store employees were not aware of IRAM’s norms. Shortly after its inspection, MEI contacted the 100 representatives appointed by the Consumer Advocate’s office to enquire about their monitoring activities. Only two officers responded, stating that they had conducted educational campaigns with store owners and had subsequently issued fines and temporary store closures for those retailers who failed to conform with the law. After MEI’s assessment, the organisation calculated that the current compliance rate sits at 25% due to minimal to non-existent government monitoring and enforcement.

The ideal Argentine body type is reflected in its mannequins/Photo by Sharon Haywood
The ideal Argentine body type is reflected in its mannequins

The problem of noncompliance is threefold. First, designers, manufacturers, and retailers staunchly oppose the law. Designers told the country’s national newspaper La Nación that the law was “nonsense.” Manufacturers state they cannot afford the additional raw materials and extra labour required to produce a full range of sizes. Shop owners assert that it is not economically feasible to increase their on-hand stock. Altschul of MEI concurred that their concerns are valid: “They need loans to help them make the transition.” Bello of ALUBA, who advised the Senate on both the provincial and the capital size laws, believes enforcement would be more successful if retailers were provided with incentives, rather than punishments by fines: “I believe taking the stance that the retailers are guilty of this situation is a strategic error.” She added that the size law could act as a catalyst for further awareness and education surrounding body image issues if it were regulated differently.

The second barrier to size law compliance is corruption. During MEI’s inspection at Unicenter, the organisation reported that many store employees were reluctant to offer information for fear of losing their jobs; however, some staff explained that monthly inspections ceased when inspectors “made deals” with store owners. Bello reinforced such realities by stating, “It’s very difficult to regulate the law where corruption exists and inspectors receive bribes.” Additionally, Altschul reported that a representative from the Consumer Advocate’s office pressured the organisation to cease their lobbying efforts. She said, “They told us that if we insisted on this law we would only be doing damage to our own neighbourhood because they [the retailers] would need to move to another neighbourhood.” Shortly thereafter, Altschul said that the Secretary of Commerce for the province of Buenos Aires called a meeting with MEI and echoed the same message, encouraging the organisation to sympathise with manufacturers and retailers.

The resistance from manufacturers, retailers, and the Consumer Advocate’s office reveals the third and most relevant barrier to seeing the law enforced: Argentina’s commitment to the beauty myth. Bello said that in Argentina “we are slaves to image. Appearances are more important than who a person is. We have to look a certain way, be a certain person. This is our cultural imperative.” The executive director of MEI cited an example of her country’s bias against fat illustrated in a particular Argentine brand of jeans: “They have jeans that young girls love but the brand only carries up to size 42, and for sizes higher than that, the size ticket reads ‘anonymous.’” She also told AnyBody that the Spanish-based clothing retailer Zara has a store in Unicenter shopping mall in the province of Buenos Aires that was legally granted permission to not comply with the size law. Altschul said, “I’ve been to Zara stores in Berlin, Athens, Washington, DC and Switzerland and they have all sizes. But not in Buenos Aires.”

Glorification of thinness is not a phenomenon exclusive to this South American country. In North America, an example of size discrimination can be found at the teen and women’s clothing store American Apparel. Activists and consumers alike have criticised the wildly popular retailer for not stocking many of their clothing items over a US size 6 (UK 8). Brianne Widaman of the body activism movement Revolution of Real Women in the United States stated, “American Apparel is not the first company to do this, but they are currently one of the most popular and most obvious examples of undisclosed size limitation … its lack of size diversity on its racks begins to come across as elitist and size-shaming.” The Argentine fashion industry is sending the exact same message as American Apparel: If you want to be fashionable, you must be thin.

According to Altschul, the Argentine Senate takes the issue seriously. In December 2009, the Senate passed a size law for adults within the capital of Buenos Aires; at present, enforcement is pending budget allocations. Additionally, a national size law for adults is currently under review in the Senate. MEI believes they are “good laws but the problem is how to translate them into public policy.” Until then, consumers must make their voices heard. MEI recommends that shoppers file a formal complaint when they discover their clothing size is unavailable. Altschul admits that the Consumer Advocate’s office demands a lot of consumers: Each consumer complaint must be submitted in writing accompanied by a notarised copy. MEI will continue to lobby against what Altschul calls “pure discrimination” but without the unified support of the public, change is not forthcoming. Bello believes that education is the answer. In a culture where Bello said, “mothers want to look like their daughters,” achieving size law compliance isn’t just a political issue. It’s a public health emergency.

Article originally published at on July 6, 2010

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Stay tuned for additional posts about the other Endangered Species summits.

Further information on the ‘Body Wars of Argentina’ includes a video of Sharon Haywood speaking on the subject at Endangered Species London. Also see International Women’s Day in Buenos Aires.

Other Endangered Species related content:

Endangered Species: Challenging Body Beautiful Culture

This March: The Body Image Activist Movement Leaps Forward Across the Globe


6 thoughts on “Battling the Beauty Myth in Argentina

  1. Hi Paulita,

    Thanks so much for commenting. I also know many women that choose to get their clothes tailor made to avoid the stress of trying to find something fashionable that fits; however, I also know many other women who simply can’t afford to do that. It’s wonderful that you’re comfortable in your own skin, but sadly, so many Argentine women are not. You mention that only one of your 33 cousins has an eating disorder but it’s important to remember that there are countless girls and women who don’t look like they have an ED or don’t admit to disordered eating – or worse still, don’t recognize their eating habits are disordered because it’s considered normal, especially in Argentina, to be on a diet.

  2. I’m argentinean and in Buenos Aires is not expensive or hard to go to a seamstress to get clothes (my mother is very small and all the clothes are usually too big for her, so she goes to one and even has to get shoes done since she is very petite). The lifestyle is also different, walking everywhere, eating healthy and smaller portions. Not everyone thinks they are fat, my friends and I are not sticks. We all are beautiful, curvy and call each other diosas. I’m a size 6 american and I find clothes everywhere (not bras tho, is hard being 32 DD). Yes, they might call me gordita hermosa in the streets but my self esteem is perfect. This is just bazaar because out of having over 33 cousins, only one of them has an eating disorder.

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